Sunday, November 8, 2009

John Brown's Hired Martial Help: Hugh Forbes

John Brown was called "Captain" Brown by many of those familiar with him and his operations, but Brown in fact had no real military training. His operations in Kansas were guerrilla in nature...surprise your enemy and instill them with terror by your presence. I can only speculate that when Brown read the title page of Hugh Forbes's book, which like many 19th century books, had a title that stretched forever, Manual for the Patriotic Volunteer; On Active Service in Regular and Irregular War; Being the Art and Science of Obtaining and Maintaining Liberty and Independence, he read what he thought was a perfect sentiment. On that title page is a quote that states, "To form an army, it is not sufficient to collect men and put arms in their hands."

Although that was exactly Brown's plan for the slaves he hoped to free, he fully understood the importance of having a solid core of properly trained men that were guided by discipline and a commitment to a cause. To that end he eventually secured the services of Colonel Hugh Forbes, an act that would eventually cause him no little discomfort in his abolitionist mission.

Forbes was a former British soldier that had fought in the European revolutions in 1848-49. He had fought under Garibaldi in Italy, and after the failed effort had ended up a silk merchant in Florence. Forbes had left his wife and family behind in Italy around 1855 seeking his fortune in America. He landed in New York City where he struggled to make ends meet as a fencing instructor, part-time journalist, author, and speaker.

Brown had read Manual for the Patriotic Volunteer (published in 1856), and Forbes's pamphlet Duties of a Soldier while in Kansas and discussed it with another English emigrant turned writer William A. Phillips. Brown was impressed with the work and when he came east in March 1857 on a fundraising mission, he looked up Forbes in New York. Forbes appeared to Brown to be like-minded. Much of Forbes's writing in the book bore this out. Forbes had written, "Right is that which is good true honorable just humane self-sacrificing - it is the opposite of wrong." Brown could not have agreed with a sentiment more. Brown saw Forbes as being yet another believer in the wrongness of slavery, even though Forbes did not share Brown's unyielding belief in equality of the races.

At that initial meeting Brown contracted with Forbes to train his men back in Kansas and Iowa. The mercenary demanded a $100 a month salary to help support his family back in Italy and an expense account. Brown, feeling that his plan was finally moving forward, readily agreed. After a delay to tie up loose ends in New York, Forbes showed up at Tabor, Iowa in August to find only Brown and his son Owen as his sole "Patriotic Volunteers." From this rough start, things only got worse for Brown and Forbes. They were in disagreement over how best carry out Brown's plan of a slave revolution. Added to the lack of men and means, and Brown's inability to pay any more salary to Forbes, the deal snapped and Forbes left to go back east to New York by early November, but promised to set up a training camp for men in Ohio if they could be raised and he would be paid. Ironically, Brown's Iowa forces increased dramatically after Forbes departed.

When Brown traveled to Ohio in January of 1858 to check on progress there, he learned that Forbes, disgruntled over not being paid, had turned against him. Forbes did not know who specifically was funding Brown's antislavery operations but he attempted to contact many he believed were Brown philanthropists (including some of the Secret Six) in attempt to discredit Brown, reveal Brown's potential future plans, and in effect blackmail them if he was not paid. This action caused Brown to contact his benefactors and assure them that he still had things in control; but it did delay his plan.

Brown initially wanted to keep momentum going and hoped to pull off his Harpers Ferry raid much earlier than it actually happened, but with Forbes stirring up so much commotion both in New England and in Washington DC, Brown was forced to postpone the raid and let the recent dust settle. He assured his supporters that he would do nothing rash and that he would strike when the time was right. Thomas Wentworth Higginson was one of the few that demanded that Brown not delay his plan. In an effort to hide his identity, now that Forbes had "outed" him, Brown grew a long beard and used different aliases.

Brown used the delay to recruit and train more men, and to gather arms and information on Harpers Ferry by sending one of his men to live in the community a number of months before the raid was committed.

Interestingly, Forbes's presence would still be a part of the raiders' lives in the weeks before the raid. As they waited at the Kennedy Farm in Maryland they often read the collection of Forbes's books that Brown had purchased to pass the time. Copies of the books were found still at the Kennedy farmhouse when it was searched in the aftermath of the failed raid.


  1. Is Hugh Forbes related to the Forbes magazine Forbes

  2. I could be wrong, but don't believe there is a connection.

  3. Hugh Forbes was the illigitimate son of The Duchesse de Gontaut and Sir henry Bayly

  4. Are there any pictures of him? I've looked everywhere, but I can't find one (I need it for a school project).

  5. Was Forbes arrested or executed for his part in the plot?

  6. As far as I know Forbes was not arrested for his small role in the affair.

  7. When (date) was Hugh Forbes born? and Where?

    1. He was born in 1808 the illegitimate son of the duchesse de gontaut. He was brought up by the earl of Granard,cousin of his father sir henry bayly, equerry to the prince regent

  8. Hugh Forbes attempted to warn, or did warn Senator William Seward of New York in 1858 of John Brown's plan to raid Harper's Ferry arsenal. Seward later admitted meeting Forbes but denied Forbes warned him of the raid plan.

  9. I need a picture for my honors fakebook project